Sometimes the Monster is a Man: A Review of Victor Frankenstein (2015) Back

Imagine, for a moment, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the Creature’s narrative. Not without the Creature, but simply a novel constructed using only the words of Walton and then Victor Frankenstein himself. A novel where the actions and unfettered ambition of Victor are rationalized and defended; the Creature labelled monster, demon, and inhuman; and also, and perhaps most importantly, this being the only perspective we are presented with. With the loss of the Creature’s voice, Shelley’s Frankenstein would lose a significant part of its richness and uniqueness, while Victor’s narrative would be notably different without its parallel, partner account.

Luckily, Shelley’s novel does give voice to Victor’s Creation, and it remains one of the text’s most enduring features: from the dual narratives of Victor and his Creation, an enduring story is born. However, the same cannot be said for Paul McGuigan’s 2015 film version, Victor Frankenstein, despite its all-star cast. Starring as Igor, Daniel Radcliffe adds Victor Frankenstein to his growing horror repertoire – which by this film’s release already included The Woman in Black (2012) and Horns (2013) – while James McAvoy plays Igor’s mentor: Victor Frankenstein himself.

This film all but erases the Creature, and, as the title suggests, Victor is instead given (almost) the whole stage: ‘I will turn the tide of human existence here, tonight, then this world, which has spurned me, will forever remember my name.’ Yet although Victor is the central focus of the film, it is not clear why. The flaws in Shelley’s Victor – his character, his ambitions, his actions, his language choices – are woven into his own narrative, to be teased out and critiqued by his Creature’s account. The flaws in McGuigan’s Victor, however, are presented inconsistently. Oscillating between scenes of horror in which Victor’s actions are condemned, but also scenes which clearly attempt to humanize him and present him as deserving of the viewer’s sympathy, this film struggles in its presentation of Victor, and the omission of the Creature’s perspective heightens this inconsistency.

Ultimately, while McGuigan’s film is a distinctive addition to the ever-growing body of Frankenstein film adaptations, I would argue that what makes it distinctive is also what ensures the film is a poor adaptation of Shelley’s novel. While it is undoubtedly a distinctive adaptation, the film’s inferiority lies in the revisions it makes to Shelley’s story, its primary focus on Victor, along with the erasure of the narrative and perspective of Shelley’s Creature.

Of course, while the Creature (or rather, in this film, Creatures) is denied a voice, the film does incorporate dual narratives: framing Victor’s story is Igor’s non-diegetic narration. Igor is a curious character: tracing his heritage not to Shelley’s original text, but rather to various twentieth-century films, he is a descendent of the stock horror character of the lab assistant. As early as 1931, the film adaptation Frankenstein provided Victor with a hunchbacked lab assistant named Fritz, while other Frankenstein films such as Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) feature a character named Ygor (Bela Lugosi), although in these films Ygor is neither a hunchback nor a lab assistant. Since these early creations by Universal, the character of Victor’s assistant, often depicted as a hunchback and frequently named Igor, has become an apocryphal staple of the Frankenstein story, particularly within film and television. Much of Victor Frankenstein hinges on McGuigan’s fleshing out of this character, providing him with a backstory tied to the nineteenth-century circus and exploring his identity as a hunchback.

There is a case to be made that, in this film, Igor and his perspective function as a replacement or stand in for the Creature. Certainly, there are many echoes of the Creature’s story in Igor’s: both are fashioned (by Victor) out of the dead, and Victor’s statement to Igor in the film that ‘I created you’ also rings true for Shelley’s Creature. However, although similar, they are not the same. While Shelley’s Creature is constructed through an assortment of dead body parts – some salvaged from fresh graves, some taken from the anatomy lab – Igor is simply given the identity of Victor’s deceased housemate, Igor Strausman.

The physical creation/birth of Shelley’s Creature is thus translated into Igor’s creation/rebirth, with both depictions incorporating the theme of parentage. Following a response of horror towards his own Creation, Shelley’s Victor acts out what is essentially a form of parental abandonment. Conversely, McGuigan’s Victor performs the fatherly acts of teaching Igor how to walk, how to dress appropriately, how to eat in a civilized manner, eventually expressing friendship and a professional partnership as he invites Igor to be an equal in their joint scientific endeavours. Thus, although Igor can be viewed as one of Victor’s creations, his story, identity, and relationship with Victor are vastly different to those of the Creature.

Igor’s creation story also elicits the uncomfortable implication that physical deformity and disability are monstrous, seeming to suggest that anything existing outside societal beauty standards need to be transformed in order for the individual to be acceptable. As Victor states, Igor was ‘a man, albeit one suffering from such grotesque deformity,’ and Victor revels in his physical transformation: ‘They’re looking for a hideous, nameless, hunchback, and Igor – I would like you to look at yourself. Igor, that creature no longer exists.’ Having rescued him from the circus, drained the abscess on his back, and bestowed upon him the name Igor, it is clear that Victor views Igor’s creation/rebirth as his achievement, and moreover, one that transforms him from a grotesque, deformed hunchback into a man. Igor proves to be Victor’s equal intellectually – perhaps even his superior – but it is evident that Igor’s intellect and surgical capabilities were present before Victor’s intervention. While Shelley’s novel challenges the concept of monstrosity as it is tied to the physical, McGuigan’s film seems to imply that to be physically deformed is to be monstrous and therefore, in the case of Igor, a lesser man.

Though the primary focus of Victor Frankenstein is its eponymous scientist and rescued circus act-turned lab assistant, Victor’s physical creations are portrayed within the film despite the omission of their voices and perspectives. Amongst various living body parts (including the eyes of the former Igor Strausman) Victor and Igor jointly create first Gordon and then Prometheus. Crucially, both are presented as beings of horror that need to be killed. Exhibiting Gordon in the university’s auditorium, Victor describes his creation as a homunculus built from various body parts acquired from the London Zoo; he is mainly chimpanzee but with multiple other species interlaced as well. Once Gordon is successfully animated, he breaks free of his restraints, causing Victor to throw a burning object at him. Clearly angered, Gordon runs away, pursed by Victor and Igor throughout the university before they violently kill him. It is worth noting that although physically horrifying, Gordon’s perceived violence is a response to Victor’s initial violent act. Echoing Victor’s narrative in Frankenstein, Gordon is referred to as ‘It’ by Igor (‘Victor, we have to kill it!’) and as ‘beast’ by Victor (‘The beast was dangerous’). However, unlike Shelley’s novel which furnishes its readers with the Creature’s account, or even this film which presents its narrative through Igor’s perspective and narration, the viewer gains little insight into Gordon’s perspective. Instead, this creation is presented as almost exclusively monstrous.

Victor Frankenstein concludes by returning to the film’s opening montage. Returning to its beginning and to shots of the now familiar Gothic castle surrounded by powerful bursts of lightning and lashing rain, Victor’s third and final creation is revealed. Prometheus, like Gordon, is presented primarily as a being of horror. In Shelley’s original text, the height and build of the Creature (standing at eight feet tall) was a consequence of Victor’s haste and laziness, and he records in his diary that ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature.’ McGuigan adapts this modification, and Prometheus is created bigger than the average human, with two sets of lungs, and with two hearts, in order to overcome issues brought to light through the creation of Gordon. This is namely to make the process of creating life by utilizing electricity or lightning easier, although by no means any less traumatic.

In the centre of the castle, the body of Prometheus is raised up towards the lightning storm amidst Victor’s avowal that ‘I will give you life.’ Victor is, of course, successful, and his creation lives. However, the result is far from what Victor had envisaged. Like Gordon, Prometheus too must be killed; and like Gordon, Prometheus’s violence occurs only after acts of violence perpetrated towards him (namely, being shot). The violence of his death at the hands of Victor and Igor is also drawn out as his having two hearts essentially necessitates a second, equally violent death before Prometheus is completely executed.

Igor’s narration declares, ‘You know this story. The crack of lightning. A mad genius. An unholy creation.’ Yet while the skeleton of Shelley’s novel is preserved, the story is altered, or perhaps fleshed, out in such a way that Victor Frankenstein becomes something entirely different. Shelley’s novel is as much about the act of creation as the responsibility this act entails, and the dual perspectives of creator and creation are both equally important. McGuigan’s film portrays the act of creation, and the Creatures themselves, in terms of visual horror, but this act is where the film’s exploration of creation very violently stops; Gordon and Prometheus are aggressive, horrific, unholy creations that need to be executed. The only one of Victor’s creations permitted to live beyond their birth/rebirth is Igor, and yet even his story is laced with the problematic equation of physical deformity with the monstrous. Like Gordon and Prometheus, the physical monstrosity of Igor requires a removal in order for him to become acceptable. In transforming, and even destroying, Victor’s creations in this way, Victor Frankenstein privileges the voice of the creator above creation, and the message of the film, that sometimes the monster is the man, is ultimately lost.

Victor Frankenstein, directed by Paul McGuigan, was released in 2015 and is now available on DVD.